Wayne Simmonds and What a Black All-Star MVP Means for the Future of the NHL

Evan F. MooreFeatured Columnist IFebruary 2, 2017

LOS ANGELES, CA - JANUARY 29:  Wayne Simmonds #17 of the Philadelphia Flyers reacts after being named the 2017 Honda Ridgeline NHL All-Star MVP following the 2017 Honda NHL All-Star Tournament Final at Staples Center on January 29, 2017 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
Harry How/Getty Images

In 1950, Ebony magazine published an article concerning the possibility of black hockey players making the National Hockey League.

The article was titled, "Can Negroes Crack Big League Hockey?"

Clarence Campbell, who was the league president from 1946 to 1977, told Ebony on the subject:

The National Hockey League only has one policy: to get the best hockey players. There is no tacit or otherwise, which would restrict anyone because of color or race.

Eight years later, Willie O'Ree suited up for the Boston Bruins. Along the way, O'Ree endured racial slurs and taunts from fans and opposing players. Even in recent history, some in the NHL have had a hard time dealing with a sport that is changing before their eyes. In 1989, Joe Bucchino, then the assistant general manager of the New York Rangers, told journalist Jeff Pearlman, then writing for his high school newspaper, that black players "medically don't have strong enough legs" to play professional hockey.

Last Sunday, Philadelphia Flyers forward Wayne Simmonds won the NHL All-Star Game MVP award, becoming only the second black player to do so. During the pregame ceremony, former Edmonton Oilers goaltender Grant Fuhr was named one of the 100 best players in the history of the NHL. He was the first black player to win the All-Star Game MVP award back in 1986.

Joining Simmonds on the All-Star team this year were other players of color including Nashville Predators defenseman P.K. Subban, Columbus Blue Jackets defenseman Seth Jones, Buffalo Sabres forward Kyle Okposo and Toronto Maple Leafs forward Auston Matthews, the No. 1 pick in the most recent NHL Draft.

LOS ANGELES, CA - JANUARY 29:  P.K. Subban #76 of the Nashville Predators reacts during the 2017 Honda NHL All-Star Game Semifinal #1 (Central vs. Pacific) at Staples Center on January 29, 2017 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images
Harry How/Getty Images

 

Based on that amount of star power, one could say the NHL—and hockey as a whole—is finally ready to take the next steps toward diversifying the sport. Hockey is still largely a "white" sport. It's already insular by nature, and within the bubble still lives a small demographic that is not ready for players of color to hit the ice.

Remember, it wasn't that long ago—2011—that the reigning All-Star MVP had a banana thrown onto the ice while he was playing in an exhibition game.

Kevin Weekes, a black former NHL goaltender and current hockey commentator, knows all about the ugly side of hockey fandom. In 2002, someone threw a banana at him during the Stanley Cup Final. He tweeted a reminder of this ugly incident after Simmonds' experience.

"For those that asked: I'm extremely disappointed with what happened to Wayne Simmonds tonight in London Ont. We've taken HUGE steps to grow the game of hockey, as I speak Willie O'Ree and I are in D.C. attending the Black Congressional Caucus on behalf of the NHL and ironically this takes place."

"I'm not surprised," Weekes told ESPN at the time. "We have some people that still have their heads in the sand and some people that don't necessarily want to evolve and aren't necessarily all that comfortable with the fact that the game is evolving."

LOS ANGELES, CA - JANUARY 29:  P.K. Subban #76 of the Nashville Predators and Wayne Simmonds #17 of the Philadelphia Flyers talk during warm ups prior to the 2017 Honda NHL All-Star Game at Staples Center on January 29, 2017 in Los Angeles, California.  (
Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Eric Stephens, a black reporter who covers the Anaheim Ducks for the Orange County Register, said that Simmonds winning the MVP award could do wonders for the NHL and the sport. He told Bleacher Report that he hopes the league can capitalize on the moment.

"I'm not sure it will be a seminal moment in the growth of players of color in hockey, but I would hope it becomes that," Stephens said. "This is what is needed—someone like Wayne Simmonds, who is a leading player on the Philadelphia Flyers, to seize a spotlight moment and make it his by winning the All-Star game MVP award. This is where a youngster who may be taking up hockey for the first time and is old enough to follow the NHL can see someone excel that looks like them.

"To me, if the league really wants to grow the game as it says, the way is to involve more minorities and players of color from backgrounds traditional and non-traditional."

Stephens went on to say that a kid who watched the All-Star Game might be inspired to play hockey.

"Having those like Simmonds and P.K. Subban, Auston Matthews, Kyle Okposo be examples of players that not only are in the NHL but perform at an All-Star level and are recognized as among the league's best can serve as inspiration for the young kid from Philadelphia or Phoenix or Chicago or Toronto or Los Angeles who may imagine being a star one day like them."

Damon Kwame Mason, a documentary filmmaker who created Soul On Ice: Past, Present, and Future, a film about the history of black hockey players, attended Sunday's All-Star Game. He echoed Stephens' sentiments that a generation of kids could become hockey fans because of the amount of players of color who participated in the All-Star Game.

"There is a kid out there watching who looks like Wayne Simmonds that jumped for joy because Wayne is his favorite player and seeing him made him feel he could do it as well," Mason told B/R. "There is a kid that watched that doesn't look like Wayne, but he is also his favorite player and seeing Wayne confirmed to him that there is no difference. They are just hockey players."

 

Evan F. Moore is a journalist, columnist and educator who writes about the intersection of sports, race, violence and culture. His work has been featured in Rolling Stone, Chicago Tribune and Ebony. Follow him on Twitter @evanfmoore.

Related

    Holtby on Grubauer: We Support Each Other

    NHL logo
    NHL

    Holtby on Grubauer: We Support Each Other

    NBC Sports
    via NBC Sports

    Lured Out of Retirement, Fisher Chasing 1st Cup

    NHL logo
    NHL

    Lured Out of Retirement, Fisher Chasing 1st Cup

    Sean Leahy
    via ProHockeyTalk

    Ovechkin 'Can't Wait' for Penguins Series

    NHL logo
    NHL

    Ovechkin 'Can't Wait' for Penguins Series

    NHL.com
    via NHL.com

    Recapping the Flyers season that was: The future is bright for the orange and black

    Philadelphia Flyers logo
    Philadelphia Flyers

    Recapping the Flyers season that was: The future is bright for the orange and black

    Jamey Baskow
    via Philly Sports Network